Health New Media Res > Volume 5(2); 2021 > Article
Schneider and Kosenko: Stigmatizing responses to Chrissy Teigen’s pregnancy loss disclosure on Twitter

Abstract

When celebrity Chrissy Teigen shared on social media that she had experienced a pregnancy loss, she received support and heavy criticism from those who questioned her decision to disclose and grieve in public. This study examined these critiques and framed these messages as constitutive of pregnancy loss stigma. A thematic analysis of 300 stigmatizing tweets revealed that these messages were marked by one or more of six features, including accusations of over-sharing, blame, questions about the photos that were shared, expressions of disgust, denunciations of the disclosure as attention-seeking behavior, and tu quoque arguments. These findings suggest the need for further research on topics such as strategic topic avoidance, grief gaslighting, and bereavement photography.

Introduction

Celebrity couple Chrissy Teigen and John Legend announced Teigen’s third pregnancy in Legend’s music video, Wild (Saad, 2020). After the music video debuted on August 13, 2020, Teigen regularly posted pregnancy updates on Instagram and Twitter. A few weeks later, Teigen disclosed via Instagram that she was experiencing pregnancy complications and was restricted to bed rest. On September 28th, she shared that she had been hospitalized after her complications grew in severity, stating, “It was at the point today where it was never stopping bleeding, and that's obviously very bad” (Harvey-Jenner, 2020). Two days later, in a heartbreaking update, Teigen revealed that she had experienced a pregnancy loss. Her post included several black and white photos of herself and Legend in the aftermath of their loss of a son they named Jack. Although the vast majority of responses to the disclosure were sympathetic and supportive, the posts were widely critiqued by those who questioned Teigen’s decision to disclose and grieve so publicly. Fellow members of the child loss community took to social media to support Teigen and denounce her critics as contributing to the stigma and silence surrounding pregnancy loss (Abrahamson, 2020; Singh, 2020).
An estimated 23 million pregnancy losses occur each year, which amounts to 44 miscarriages per minute. In addition to its physical effects, miscarriage can cause significant psychological trauma, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicidal ideation (Quenby et al., 2021). Although pregnancy loss creates significant support needs, the stigma associated with it discourages miscarriage disclosures, which complicates support-seeking efforts (Andalibi et al., 2016). Numerous scholars and studies suggest that perinatal loss is highly stigmatized (e,g., Pollock et al., 2020; Riggs et al., 2021), but little is known about the social construction of pregnancy loss stigma. The silence surrounding fetal demise makes pregnancy loss stigma particularly difficult to study, but Teigen’s public disclosure and the negative responses it engendered provide a rare glimpse and offer a unique opportunity to examine the message features constitutive of pregnancy loss stigma. To this end, we designed a study of the stigmatizing responses to Teigen’s Twitter disclosure of her pregnancy loss. The following sections describe the conceptual foundations of the study, including a review of the extant literature on pregnancy loss and communication and the social construction of pregnancy loss stigma.

Literature Review

Pregnancy Loss and Communication

Perinatal loss describes fetal demise due to miscarriage (i.e., a loss experienced during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy), stillbirth (i.e., a loss after 20 weeks), or neonatal death (i.e., a loss during or closely following birth; Kersting & Wagner, 2012). These devastating events are frequent occurrences, with some citing statistics as high as half of all pregnancies ending in loss (March of Dimes, 2017). Although stillbirths have been on the decline since 2000, some countries saw a rise in stillbirth rates during the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., Khalil et al., 2020; KC et al., 2020). Despite being relatively common, a perinatal loss is not well understood by the general public. For example, in studies designed to gauge what the general public knows about miscarriage rates, the vast majority of participants severely underestimated the frequency with which miscarriage occurs (Bardos et al., 2015; McCarthy et al., 2020). Stillbirth, which affects approximately 1 in 160 pregnancies, is also poorly understood by the general public, with few able to correctly identify its incidence rate or potential risk factors (Mohan et al., 2019; Nuzum et al., 2018).
These misconceptions are perpetuated by the silence surrounding pregnancy loss (Bute et al., 2019). Discussions of perinatal loss are largely absent from public discourse and strongly discouraged in interpersonal interaction (Conway & Russell, 2000). Death, in general, and fetal demise, in particular, are taboo topics, left out of polite conversation (Layne, 2003; Markin & Zilcha-Mano, 2018). Rather than risk having to disclose a miscarriage, many individuals wait to announce their pregnancies until after the first trimester, which is when most miscarriages occur (Zucker, 2021). These and other privacy rules governing pregnancy loss disclosures create a “silent environment within which women experience miscarriage” that is “characterized by inadequate support” (Rowlands & Lee, 2010, p. 274). Although pregnancy loss can produce a range of emotions, including relief, experiencing one is generally considered a traumatic event with devastating emotional consequences (Corbet-Owen & Kruger, 2001). Psychological sequelae of pregnancy loss include depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attempted and completed suicide (Quenby et al., 2021). Despite evidence that these psychological morbidities are exacerbated by a lack of support (Swanson, 2000), the silence surrounding pregnancy loss makes it difficult for affected individuals to discuss the loss and, thus, gain adequate support (Bute et al., 2019).
Efforts to obtain needed support are further complicated by insensitive responses to pregnancy loss. Although research on perinatal loss disclosures and disclosure responses is still in its infancy, related research on perceived social support inadequacies in the miscarriage context suggests that these disclosures are often met with unhelpful and dismissive responses (Brann et al., 2020). For example, those who have had a miscarriage describe interactions with health care providers who seemed to question the significance of an early loss and the legitimacy of their grief (Rowlands & Lee, 2010). Individuals in other studies recount similar invalidating responses from family and friends. For instance, Meyer (2016) described seemingly well-intended comments from families that ended up being more hurtful than helpful. Even those who felt supported in the immediate aftermath of their loss recalled that support dwindling over time and eventually feeling pressured to “move on” and “get over it” (Rowlands & Lee, 2010). In a quantitative examination of the general public’s responses to stillbirth, the perceived appropriateness of parents sharing images of their stillborn child decreased over time, presumably due to beliefs that “they should be over it by now” (Keeble et al., 2018, p. 5).
Support inadequacies within one’s social network drive some online where they can access support from weak ties and peers (i.e., others who have experienced a pregnancy loss; Blackburn et al., 2021). Mourning and loss are popular online support group topics, accounting for 10% of Yahoo! Support groups alone (van der Houwen et al., 2010). Online discussion boards and social media offer additional outlets for one’s grief as well as opportunities for support (Robinson & Pond, 2019). Despite these opportunities, social media discussions of death are subject to social sanctions (Sabra, 2017; Wagner, 2018). For instance, many people doubt the sincerity of those posting messages about death online, suspecting that they are seeking attention instead of support. Additionally, on Facebook, a majority of individuals frowned upon posts about death because “grief is too intense to publicize in a weak tie social network” (Sabra, 2017, p. 36). Although researchers have examined miscarriage disclosures on social media sites (e.g., Cesare et al., 2020; Mercier et al., 2020), few if any, studies focus on responses to these disclosures or the efficacy of online support in the context of perinatal death. Given the potential for the former to impact the latter, a greater understanding of responses to social media pregnancy loss disclosures becomes imperative.

Pregnancy Loss Stigma

Conceptualizing conversations about pregnancy loss as taboo implies stigma. Stigma traditionally has been defined as a mark or blemish (either literal or metaphorical), applied to a person, which is socially determined and devalued (Goffman, 1963). Although (or because) stigma has been studied and applied across disciplines, it lacks conceptual clarity (Kosenko et al., 2019). While the sociological literature tends to focus on discrimination and power imbalances (e.g., Link & Phelan, 2001), social psychologists define stigma in terms of traits that prompt negative stereotyping (e.g., Crocker et al., 1998). Goffman (1963) originally distinguished between enacted and felt stigma, presumably to differentiate between social and psychological manifestations of stigma. A communication-centered definition of stigma can enhance the conceptual clarity of the term and reconcile the discrepancies between its psychological and sociological definitions. Both Smith (2007) and Meisenbach (2010) offer theoretical treatments of stigma from a communication perspective, but neither defines stigma as communication (for a review see, Kosenko et al., 2019). Kosenko, Winderman, and Pugh synthesized the extant research on abortion stigma and proffered a communication-centered definition of stigma that informed the current project. In keeping with their definition, we consider pregnancy loss stigma as “constituted in messages that separate and label something as physically, behaviorally, morally, or socially deficient” (p. 4).
Despite being a common refrain in the literature on the psychosocial impact of pregnancy loss, stigma is not well detailed or described in this literature. Although no studies focus specifically on pregnancy loss stigma or attempt to codify its features, the qualitative literature on the psychosocial experiences of individuals post-miscarriage or stillbirth offers various examples of stigmatizing interactions. For example, individuals across studies describe being hurt by some of the language used to talk about pregnancy loss, such as calling it a “spontaneous abortion” or referring to the loss of a “fetus” instead of a “baby” (Watson et al., 2019). Comments that imply or indicate that an early loss is not “real” or that one is somehow better off for losing a pregnancy in the early stages are also considered dismissive and invalidating (Meyer, 2016). Those who have experienced a stillbirth describe being and feeling blamed by others for the loss and socially sanctioned for sharing images of their child (Brierley-Jones et al., 2014; Pollock et al., 2020). In one of the few studies focused on pregnancy loss stigma, Brierly-Jones and colleagues found that stillbirth spoils various aspects of one’s identity, including one’s role as a parent and patient, which contributes to felt stigma. Taken together, these studies indicate that pregnancy loss stigma takes various forms, but little is known about its constitutive elements.
Both the Lancet (Quenby et al., 2021) and the World Health Organization (2020) have recently pushed for more research on pregnancy loss, in general, and pregnancy loss stigma, in particular. To answer this call, we designed a study of the constitutive elements of pregnancy loss stigma as evidenced in public responses to Chrissy Teigen’s disclosure of her loss. The study was guided by the following research question:
How is pregnancy loss stigma constructed through negative responses to a celebrity's social media disclosure?

Methods

We addressed this research question by gathering responses to Chrissy Teigen’s tweet about losing her baby, Jack. Teigen is just one of over 186 million users of Twitter, a social networking site that allows individuals to share brief messages called “tweets” with their followers (Iqbal, 2021). Like many celebrities, Teigen’s account is public, allowing anyone to read and respond to her messages. Before her recent fall from the public’s graces due to a bullying scandal, Teigen was one of Twitter’s most popular and prolific tweeters, so much so that the company dubbed her the Mayor of Twitter (Lyons, 2021). Her tweet about her pregnancy loss, which included a black and white photo of Teigen crying in a hospital bed and an accompanying message describing the loss, received thousands of responses, and the loss of Jack was a trending topic on Twitter. To gather these responses, we relied on the Twitter Search Application Program Interface (API), which, in response to a search query, returns a list of relevant tweets gathered from public accounts. In this case, we used the Twitter API to gather the first 24 hours’ worth of responses to Teigen’s initial tweet, posted at 12:03 AM EST on October 1, 2020, which, ironically, marks the beginning of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. By 5 PM EST on October 1st, multiple news outlets had published stories denouncing the negative feedback received by Teigen. Given the potential for these news stories to change how people responded to Teigen on Twitter, we elected to focus on just the immediate reactions to the disclosure. Using the Twitter API to gather the first 24 hours’ worth of responses to Teigen’s disclosure produced a sample of 6138 tweets. The following sections describe how we cleaned and analyzed these data.
We followed a two-step process when cleaning the data. First, we reviewed the entire corpus of tweets to identify ones written in other languages or comprised solely of emojis. We eliminated these tweets from the dataset. We also deleted any duplicates. The result was a sample of 5418 tweets. The second step in the process entailed determining which tweets were stigmatizing. We began with a collective review of a subset of the sample to identify tweets that separated and labeled Teigen’s loss and disclosure as physically, behaviorally, morally, or socially deficient, per our definition of pregnancy loss stigma. Once both authors were able to consistently identify the same tweets as stigmatizing, the dataset was split for each author to review independently. Following this procedure, we identified 300 stigmatizing tweets.
These 300 tweets were subjected to a thematic analysis in order to identify the constitutive elements of pregnancy loss stigma. We adhered to Braun and Clarke’s (2006) recommended procedure for thematic analysis, which begins with a review of the entirety of the dataset to get a holistic view of the data. The second step involved using the previously stated definition of pregnancy loss stigma as a sensitizing concept to generate initial codes or short descriptors for each tweet. Next, we created a master list of the codes and started sorting and grouping them into themes. After returning to the dataset to assess the exhaustiveness of the list of codes and themes, we began the final step, which involved generating names for and descriptions of the themes. The result was an exhaustive but not mutually exclusive set of themes, described more fully below.

Results

Chrissy Teigen’s Twitter disclosure of her pregnancy loss engendered a range of negative responses constitutive of stigma. Consistent with Kosenko et al.’s (2019) definition of stigma, these messages label Teigen’s pregnancy loss and disclosure as physically, behaviorally, and socially bereft. These negative responses were marked by one or more of six features. They (a) accused Teigen of over-sharing; (b) blamed her; (c) questioned the photos that were shared; (d) expressed disgust; (e) labeled the disclosure as attention-seeking behavior; and, (f) made tu quoque arguments. Each of these message features is described more fully below.

Accusing Teigen of Over-Sharing

Numerous individuals criticized Teigen for over-sharing and violating privacy rules surrounding pregnancy loss. These tweets labeled Teigen’s disclosure (as opposed to the pregnancy loss, itself) as a violation of social norms, which, in the case of pregnancy loss, dictate that the affected suffer in silence. For example, one user tweeted, “Keep some parts of your life private. Sorry for your loss, but this is too much information.” Another user stated, “Some things should be kept private; this is one of them.” Those who accused Teigen of over-sharing usually mentioned “privacy,” but they never made specific mention of “miscarriage” or “stillbirth.” Instead, they referred to Teigen’s loss and disclosure in the vaguest of terms, such as “this.” For instance, one individual tweeted, “This should be a private affair. Shame.” Another added, “Get out of the public with this.” These individuals reified pregnancy loss privacy rules by explicitly stating them while avoiding any direct discussion of it. This linguistic erasure of Jack’s death not only evidences the silence surrounding pregnancy loss; it dehumanizes and, thereby, stigmatizes Jack and Chrissy.
Some of the tweets that accused Teigen of over-sharing implied that it made her a bad mother. For instance, one user tweeted, “No grief-stricken mother will ever posted this.” Another added, “What a disgrace to moms worldwide. This should be private.” These tweets frame Teigen’s disclosure as evidence of her failure as a mother. One user went as far as to claim that Jack died in order to avoid having Chrissy as a mother: “Even in the most devastating of times, you post a picture? Disgusting. Now I’m positive that your fetus saw into the future with you as a mother.” Twitter users who accused Teigen of over-sharing did not blame her for the pregnancy loss but faulted her for disclosing it, thereby stigmatizing pregnancy loss disclosures.

Blaming Teigen

Other tweets laid blame on Teigen for the pregnancy loss, itself. Both shame and blame are part and parcel of stigma—so much so that scholars have struggled to disentangle the concepts. Many studies frame shame and blame (particularly self-blame) as outcomes or consequences of stigmatization (e.g., Else-Quest et al., 2009; Phelan et al., 2013). Here, blame and blaming are constitutive of stigma. For example, questions about Chrissy’s behavior while pregnant and its potential role in Jack’s death suggested that she might be responsible and, thus, worthy of blame and stigma. For example, one tweet stated, “Not to be rude but could she have had complications from her surgery she had to get her breast implants taken out?” Teigen’s use of cosmetic procedures while pregnant was mentioned by another user who tweeted, “Guess that Botox wasn’t such a good idea after all.” These tweets did not explicitly blame Teigen for Jack’s death, but they suggested that her vanity was a contributing factor. In fact, all of the “explanations” that users offered for Jack’s death focused on Chrissy’s culpability. As one user tweeted, “I heard woman aren’t supposed have kids frequently; it’s too much wear and tear for the body.” These attempts to explain the unexplainable positioned Teigen as a causal agent who was responsible and, thus, to blame for her pregnancy loss.
Other tweets framed Teigen’s loss as a sort of karmic revenge for her past misdeeds. Some cited her past tweets as evidence of Teigen’s moral turpitude; others referenced conspiracy theories about Teigen being an associate of Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted sex offender and accused sex trafficker, and part of a cabal of child-eating Democrats. One user shared a screenshot of some of Teigen’s past tweets and stated, “Just gonna leave this here. God watches your Twitter, too.” Another user shared a similar sentiment: “Word on the street is you’re a bad person. So, sorry, not sorry.” Others made more inflammatory statements, such as “don’t eat babies” and “that’s what you get for raping kids.” One user elaborated: “You’ve been supporting abortions and child sex trafficking, and now God gave you this consequence.” Although tweets like this one did not suggest that Teigen did something to cause her pregnancy loss, they argued that she was indirectly to blame by incurring the wrath of a vengeful God.

Questioning the Photos

Twitter users who responded to Teigen’s disclosure made frequent mention of the photos included in the initial post. These individuals questioned the decision to take and share the photos as well as their authenticity. Like accusations of over-sharing, critiques of the photos instantiated pregnancy loss privacy rules and labeled those who violated these rules as socially bereft. For example, several users tweeted some variation of the following: “Who would take this photo, let alone post it? Feels really weird.” Others had more choice words for Teigen and the photos. Many users asked who took the photos and seemed to hold both Teigen and the photographer equally responsible for the “inappropriate photos.” As one individual tweeted, “Why would you allow yourself to be photographed in such a distressed state in what is clearly a stressful moment? I’m sorry that you and John lost your baby, but this looks really inappropriate.” Another user shared a similar sentiment: “Very sad. But, who takes a photo? Who allows a photo to be taken? Who then posts it? Extremely bizarre behavior at an awful time.”
Several users accused Teigen of using her tragedy as an opportunity for photos and social media shares and likes. For instance, a number of tweets used the phrase, “photo op,” as a derogatory description of Teigen’s loss and disclosure. As one user succinctly stated, “Great photo op! Seriously, who does that?” Another user voiced similar concerns: “You really took this tragic loss as an opportunity for a photo op? Sickening.” These repeated references to “photo ops” served to delegitimize Teigen’s grief by questioning its authenticity. Others cited the fact that the photos were edited (seemingly from color to black and white) as evidence of their inauthenticity. As one user tweeted, “Black and white filter really amps up the drama. Super!” A second user stated, “I understand it’s a difficult moment. I can only wonder at the strength involved. Remembering to capture the moment on camera and then run black and white filers before posting it really demonstrates that.” References to photo ops and editing implied that the pictures and the emotions conveyed in them were fake. Some even claimed that Teigen’s pregnancy was fake and that the loss was staged to gain public sympathy. For example, one user chided Teigen, tweeting, “Fake pregnancy to get publicity. Shame on you.” Tweets claiming that Teigen’s pregnancy was fake or that the photos and heartbreak conveyed in them were staged offered clear examples of grief gaslighting and the stigma surrounding pregnancy loss disclosures.

Expressing Disgust

Many Twitter users expressed disgust in their responses to Teigen’s disclosure. Some used foul language to convey their disgust. For instance, one user tweeted, “I’m sorry, but who the fuck thought it was a good idea to take a picture of this?” Another user stated, “So, your baby dies, and the first thing you do is go on Twitter? WTF is wrong with you people? SMFH. You Hollywood people are a special kind of stupid.” Although these tweets did not explicitly mention disgust, they conveyed the user’s disgusted response to Teigen and her disclosure. Name-calling also communicated disgust. Twitter users described Teigen as “a lying Satanist drama queen,” “a malignant narcissist,” and a “media whore,” and they labeled her disclosure as “damn trashy,” “pathetic,” “sickening,” and “deeply disturbing.” References and comparisons to other stigmatized groups, such as those suffering from mental illness or individuals involved in sex work, not only communicated disgust; they created a sort of linguistic courtesy stigma or guilt by association.
Numerous tweets explicitly mention disgust, usually in reference to the pictures. For instance, one user tweeted, “Who the fuck posts a picture of this? Disgusting.” Another user stated, “Why people (celebrities) feel the need to pose for pictures for everything and post everything for attention is disgusting. Who the fuck is taking someone’s pic right after their baby dies?” Some individuals who called Teigen and her disclosure, “disgusting,” described their own experiences with pregnancy loss. As one user stated, “I lost babies at 17 and 19 weeks. Held my dead babies. Any, my girlfriend was never in the state to take professional pics after. You’re fucking disgusting.” A second individual tweeted:
  • Having suffered multiple miscarriages, I am so very sorry for your loss. That said, I don’t understand the need to share this on Twitter or make it a public spectacle. You’re only feeding the criticism that it’s always and only about you. And, that’s disgusting. Seek help.

The fact that these individuals disclosed pregnancy losses while criticizing Teigen for disclosing her pregnancy loss is not just ironic; it suggests that some kinds of pregnancy loss disclosures are more socially acceptable and, thus, less stigmatized than others.

Labeling the Disclosure as Attention-Seeking Behavior

Several Twitter users questioned Teigen’s motives for disclosing. Some suggested it was part of a calculated effort to stay in the limelight; others cited the disclosure as evidence of society’s obsession with social media. All of the tweets in this category dismissed Teigen’s disclosure as attention-seeking behavior, thereby contributing to the stigma surrounding pregnancy loss disclosures. One individual called Teigen’s disclosure “a total PR move. It’s such a personal experience. This self promotion is despicable.” A second Twitter user deemed the disclosure a “publicity stunt” and described Teigen as a “clout chaser.” Some accused Teigen of capitalizing on her loss by selling the pictures that were taken. For example, one user asked, “How much money did you make selling that picture to E!?” Unable to ascertain Teigen’s motives for sharing her personal tragedy, these individuals assumed that she was benefiting financially, which they found reprehensible.
Many of those who labeled Teigen’s disclosure as attention-seeking behavior cited it as evidence of society’s moral decay. For example, one Twitter user stated, “This is a sad commentary on humanity when someone can go through something so very tragic, and their first inclination is to share it on social media.” Another user added, “‘Hey, get a photo of all this grief I’m experiencing right now so I can get likes on Twitter.’ You really cheapened the entire message. Our society is screwed.” Individuals who described Teigen’s disclosure as evidence of society’s obsession with social media paid particular attention to the photos that Teigen shared. As one user stated,
  • Miscarriage is such a painful thing, and I’m sorry for your loss. I had several. All different experiences but one thing—no where did I see it as a photo opportunity. Talk about it…great. But, this look-at-me culture just needs to stop.

A second user expressed a similar sentiment:
  • Okay, this is sad and all, but who the fuck goes, ‘We need a pic of you crying,’ and then goes ahead and takes the picture, and posts it? Why? For extra likes? Would be enough with the text, if you ask me.

These Twitter users suggested that Teigen took and shared the photos because she, like the rest of society, is image-obsessed and needs to feel seen. Characterizing Teigen’s disclosure as a cry for attention as opposed to a cry for help is constitutive of stigma.

Making Tu Quoque Arguments

In argumentation, tu quoque fallacies are a kind of personal attack in which one’s past actions are used to discredit one’s current claims. The person being attacked is labeled a hypocrite and their claims dismissed. In this sample, some individuals tried to invalidate Teigen’s loss and grief by referencing her support of reproductive rights and Planned Parenthood. One Twitter user stated, “I just don’t know why you are sad and crying because you had a miscarriage when you mostly are promoting to keep abortions legal.” Another user echoed this sentiment: “Due respect, but that’s how every girl feels when they get out of Planned Parenthood, which has your support. #ProLife.” A third added, “But, yet, you don’t grieve for the millions of babies murdered every year by abortion.” These tweets minimized Teigen’s loss by arguing that Teigen’s response to her own pregnancy loss was incompatible with her views on abortion. As one user explained, “It’s hard to reconcile the parents’ grief with their radical abortion rights position. I wonder if this tragic loss will cause them to rethink that. Jack was a human life.”
Some individuals used pro-choice rhetoric to taunt and diminish Teigen. For instance, several of the tweets in this category referenced “clumps of cells.” As one user tweeted, “But, I thought it was just a clump of cells? Who cares, right? It’s not actually a baby.” Another person wrote, “I thought it was just a clump of cells, Chrissy. What’s all the fuss?” A third person asserted, “Jack was not a clump of cells, and neither are all other babies that are taken too early.” Although these messages might appear to be using Teigen’s own words against her, we could not find any record of her using that phrase. As such, it is more likely that these Twitter users are drawing on rhetorical tropes that they associate with the pro-choice movement. Other ad hominem attacks came in the form of name-calling and wild accusations. Several users labeled Teigen as “pro-abortion” and, thus, unworthy of sympathy or support. As one user articulated, “Fuck you. You’re pro-abortion. In fact, you love abortion. You’re an asshole.” Other tweets referenced far-right conspiracy theories about baby-eating Democrats and rumors about Teigen’s involvement with Jeffrey Epstein and human trafficking. For example, one user wrote, “Didn’t this lady visit Jeffery Epstein’s island?” Another stated, “Girl, didn’t you make jokes about child trafficking? You probs just sold them.” Comments, such as “you didn’t eat it, did you?” and “aren’t you a nonce, though?” implied that Teigen was a cannibal and pedophile, respectively. By linking Teigen to highly stigmatized groups and attacking her character, Twitter users both minimized and stigmatized her loss. In review, stigmatizing responses to Chrissy Teigen’s pregnancy loss disclosure involved accusations of over-sharing and attention-seeking, blame, questions about the photos, expressions of disgust, and tu quoque arguments.

Discussion

Negative responses from the Twitterverse to Chrissy Teigen’s loss both evidenced and added to pregnancy loss stigma in various ways. Those who accused Teigen of over-sharing and violating pregnancy loss privacy rules adhered to their own rules by avoiding discussion of Jack, thereby erasing and stigmatizing him. Blame, a concept commonly linked to stigma (Phelan et al., 2013), took the form of problematic explanations or attributions for Teigen’s loss. Tweets about the photos indicated that pregnancy loss should not be heard or seen, and comments about editing and inauthenticity attempted to gaslight Teigen’s loss and her grief. Twitter users expressed their disgust with Teigen by cursing and calling her names that referenced other stigmatized groups and those who made tu quoque arguments added to this courtesy stigma by linking Teigen to abortion, cannibalism, and pedophilia. Each of these stigmatizing responses to Teigen’s pregnancy loss disclosure is discussed in further detail below.
Despite being the reason for the post, Teigen’s pregnancy loss was rarely mentioned in responses. Instead, commenters relied on demonstrative pronouns, such as “this,” to avoid explicit discussion of Teigen’s loss. These findings mirror those of previous studies that have noted a culture of silence surrounding pregnancy loss (e.g., Bute et al., 2019; Rowlands & Lee, 2010). Our study indicates that topic avoidance, in the form of vague pronominal referents, contributes to this silence. Although communication scholars have amassed a wealth of research on topic avoidance (e.g., Caughlin et al., 2011; Palomares & Derman, 2019), few, if any, have examined it in the context of pregnancy loss disclosures and responses. Moreover, little is known about how strategic topic avoidance is accomplished linguistically (Dailey & Palomares, 2004). Findings from this study suggest that research on pregnancy loss and topic avoidance is necessary to enhance our understanding of these important communicative processes.
Stigmatizing responses also took the form of blaming Teigen for her loss. This finding is consistent with the predictions of Smith’s (2007) theory of stigma communication, which indicates that blame is one of its core attributes. Self-blame is also a common theme in the literature on the psychological sequelae of pregnancy loss (Frost & Condon, 1996). Although there are numerous studies and interventions focused on reducing self-blame among those who have experienced pregnancy loss, researchers have yet to determine what causes self-blame and why some individuals are more likely to blame themselves for a pregnancy loss. Frost and Condon hypothesized that problematic attribution processes were to blame. They argued that, for some, the search for meaning after a pregnancy loss became a search for the cause of the loss, which called into question the pregnant person’s health and behavior. Frost and Condon framed this attribution process as an internal one, but our study indicates that it is a communicative one, as well. Additional research focused on the communicative contributions to self-blame would add to our understanding of what causes it and potentially illuminate how attributions are accomplished in conversation.
Many of the stigmatizing responses to Teigen’s Twitter disclosure focused on the photos, which commenters thought looked staged and edited. Twitter users questioned the authenticity of the photos and the grief portrayed in them with some going as far as to accuse Teigen of staging her entire pregnancy. This denial of Teigen’s reality is consistent with the concept of gaslighting, a term that has captured the public imaginary but eluded academic theorizing (Sweet, 2019). Although researchers have yet to study grief gaslighting, the concept Many of the stigmatizing responses to Teigen’s Twitter disclosure focused on the photos, which commenters thought looked staged and edited. Twitter users questioned the authenticity of the photos and the grief portrayed in them with some going as far as to accuse Teigen of staging her entire pregnancy. This denial of Teigen’s reality is consistent with the concept of gaslighting, a term that has captured the public imaginary but eluded academic theorizing (Sweet, 2019). Although researchers have yet to study grief gaslighting, the concept Many of the stigmatizing responses to Teigen’s Twitter disclosure focused on the photos, which commenters thought looked staged and edited. Twitter users questioned the authenticity of the photos and the grief portrayed in them with some going as far as to accuse Teigen of staging her entire pregnancy. This denial of Teigen’s reality is consistent with the concept of gaslighting, a term that has captured the public imaginary but eluded academic theorizing (Sweet, 2019). Although researchers have yet to study grief gaslighting, the concept warrants further attention, particularly as it relates to disenfranchised grief, which involves mourning a loss that is not publicly recognized. Research on disenfranchised grief indicates that disenfranchisement is an active process, involving invalidating and disconfirming messages from others about the loss (Attig, 2004). Despite its obvious communicative basis, disenfranchised grief has received little attention from communication scholars. Findings from this study suggest that grief gaslighting might be one mechanism by which one’s loss becomes socially stigmatized and one’s grief becomes socially unacceptable.
Twitter users also critiqued the decision to take and share the photos. Clinical recommendations support Teigen’s decision to take photos during and after her pregnancy loss, a practice known as bereavement photography (Blood & Cacciatore, 2014; Meredith, 2000). Although its benefits have been demonstrated in multiple studies and offering photography services is considered a best practice in perinatal bereavement patient care (Primeau & Recht, 1994), findings from this study indicate that bereavement photography remains poorly understood by the general public. For instance, many commenters criticized Teigen’s photos for being in black and white, arguing that it made the photos feel staged. The use of a black and white filter is common in perinatal bereavement photography as it can mask damage to and decay of the infant’s body (Bertman, 2018). Increasing public awareness of bereavement photography is the first step toward reducing the stigma surrounding the practice and the resulting photographs.
Negative reactions to the photos should be considered alongside the social affordances and norms of Twitter. Teigen originally posted the pictures and accompanying caption to Instagram and then shared the Instagram post on Twitter. Each social media platform has its own affordances, with Instagram focusing on pictures and likes. Social norms surrounding Instagram dictates that images shared are meant to be liked not just seen (Ross, 2019). Sharing images, which is far less common on Twitter, might have violated some users’ expectations for the platform. Although a systematic review is outside the scope of this investigation, a cursory reading of the responses to Teigen’s Instagram post uncovered similar negative comments about the photos, which suggests that the platform did not matter as much as the message, itself. Negative responses to the post on Instagram might be a product of expectations that women perform their pregnancies on Instagram as picture-perfect (Mayoh, 2019; Tiidenberg & Baym, 2017). Both Teigen’s pregnancy loss disclosure and previous posts about pregnancy complications served as sites of resistance to the platform’s dominant pregnancy narrative. Further research on the performance of high-risk pregnancies and perinatal bereavement on social media is needed to more fully understand the counter-narratives available to those who do not have a picture-perfect pregnancy.
Those who responded negatively to Teigen’s disclosure relied on logical fallacies to slander her. For example, tu quoque arguments were common, with many arguing that Teigen’s post was hypocritical given her vocal support of Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights. Others referred to far-right conspiracy theories and alluded to Teigen’s involvement with Jeffrey Epstein, a sex offender. These attempts to discredit Teigen by linking her to highly stigmatized groups, such as sex offenders and cannibals, conferred a sort of courtesy stigma, which stems from one’s association with a stigmatized group or individual. Several studies have addressed people’s experiences with and attempts to manage courtesy stigma (e.g., MacRae, 1999; Turner et al., 2007), but few, if any, studies explore how courtesy stigma is constituted in conversation. Findings from this study suggest that messages linking an individual to a stigmatized group might contribute to courtesy stigma. Additional research on courtesy stigma from a communication perspective is needed to clarify its conversational components.
In review, Chrissy Teigen’s loss and the negative responses to her disclosure were unfortunate; however, they represented an opportunity to learn more about the communicative construction of pregnancy loss stigma. In an essay that Teigen posted on Medium.com, she acknowledged the negative responses to her disclosure, writing, “I cannot express how little I care that you hate the photos. How little I care that it’s something you wouldn’t have done…These photos are only for the people who need them.” Although she was referring to others who have suffered or will endure a similar loss, the photos prompted needed conversations about and hopefully further research on pregnancy loss and its associated stigma.

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